Field Trip to Kotra


We are back on the road in late April, this time to Kotra block, the furthest-flung of Seva Mandir’s work areas. As ever, it is a challenge to persuade people that we do actually want to leave early and that 8 am really does mean 8 am, but we are finally on the way at 8.20 with a full day ahead of us. Two and a bit hours later we arrive at Seva Mandir’s complex in Kotra town and are met by the young and very efficient Himanshu, who has organized our 2-day trip. After a quick cup of chai we are on our way to see a number of the Ecosan toilets that Seva Mandir has installed in the area.

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In such a water-scarce region, where the cliché of more mobiles than toilets is absolutely true, this system has proved really successful. Solid and wet waste are kept separate. The former is stored in a chamber where it is treated with ash and, after a few months, has turned into odourless manure for the fields.

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The liquid waste is also used on the fields. As veterans of Indian loos, we were rather squeamish about inspecting an Ecosan when we first visited one a few years ago, but they are without fail kept clean and smell-free, and the families in whose yards they have been built are extremely proud of them. Persuading all the members of the family to use them and abandon old habits of using the fields is a challenge, but the success rate has gone up dramatically after the women were encouraged to help design an additional space in the small buildings where they can wash themselves and their clothes, both of which would otherwise have to happen outside.

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These loos with bathrooms (water not on tap, but carried in for washing from the nearby handpump) cost Seva Mandir Rs 21,000 (approx. £ 210) to build. The beneficiaries are required to make a contribution, which often includes materials and labour.

You may have read in the international press that India’s new prime minister, Mr Modi, promised that his priority would be ‘toilets not temples’, and indeed the government is building toilets all around this rural area, often right beside the Seva Mandir toilets. Unfortunately they build them so small and so poorly, and without digging the necessary pits, that they are almost never used. We see piles of concrete blocks left at a site ready for the construction of another of these abortive loos.

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Targets are clearly being met, but in a way that is a complete waste of money in an area so desperately short of so many basics.

We next visit a small house-cum-shop

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where the inhabitants are keen to show us their candle water filter. Seva Mandir has distributed these steel containers equipped with ceramic ‘candles’,

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which filter the water to make it potable, to rural inhabits who live too far away to benefit from chlorinated community water tanks.

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The owners have to be careful, though, as the containers can easily be knocked over by the ubiquitous goats, breaking the ceramic filters which can only be replaced in the city 150 km away.

Next stop a village water tank where the water from the adjacent well is purified with chlorine, making it safe to drink. Several women and children are collecting water in pots which they carry home on their heads. This is obviously a good place to meet and chat!

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On to some fields

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where the wheat is being harvested

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– as usual, by hand by the women.

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The wheat is separated from the straw by a threshing machine which works 24 hours a day to serve many local farmers, and is then winnowed by hand (this seems to be a man’s job, with the women carrying loads of grain to keep him supplied).

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Some very unseasonal rain and even hail has recently destroyed some of the crop, and there is a rush to complete the harvest before some more possible bad weather – quite unheard of at this time of year and devastating to these smallholders who merely scrape a living as it is.

We then have a demonstration in how to make panchagavya, a mixture of five ingredients (panch being Hindi for five): cow dung (that invaluable local resource), cow urine, jaggery (produced from sugar cane and found in all Indian homes and markets), curd and powdered pulses.   The ingredients are mixed by hand and then stored in a plastic tank – apparently becoming a bit smelly after a while!

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But it is not only organic and virtually free (the only cost being the very cheap jaggery), it has also been shown to improve the fertility and moisture of the soil. The farmers’ plots are divided into squares and the mixture is placed at all four corners, promoting fungal growth which spreads across the whole plot.

Our final visit before lunch is to a balwadi, another of Seva Mandir’s wonderful little day-care centres for children aged 1-5 which allow mothers and elder siblings to work and go to school.

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With a tiny budget, very few and very basic materials (a few sheets of paper, some stickers, some hand-sewn fabric bags for storing games, some plastic toys) and locally trained teachers, these institutions do a fantastic job – not just keeping the children safe, but also stimulating early development, monitoring them for malnutrition and providing meals and nutritional supplements.

On leaving the balwadi we find our driver talking to and photographing a group of men emerging from the bushes armed with bows and arrows and what looks like a blunderbuss. We had been told on our first visit to the area that the tribal people here have their own system of law and order, and frequently use bows and arrows to stop vehicles and rob their passengers. But this is the first time we have seen a group of armed men. At least they seem happy and unthreatening!

After a good, simple vegetarian lunch back at base we are on the road again, to visit some of the work being funded by a large grant from RBS (and so, I suppose, the British tax payer), God bless them. This project aims to increase the incomes of 1,000 local farmers threefold over three years. It involves physical work to increase the water supply, by building lift wells, check dams to divert water that otherwise flows off to neighbouring Gujarat, 3.5 km of channels to take this water alongside farmers’ fields and allow it to be used for irrigation,

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restoring old dams (anicuts) and 1,000 hectares of watershed development. In addition, it is enabling planting of useful species both in the common pastureland areas and on individual smallholdings, and providing those who are not able to benefit from any of the other water-related activities with livestock (hens and goats). This is a huge project with clear benefits to a very poor area, and Seva Mandir is working hard to get all the work done on time, writing and sending multiple reports to the donors.

Our next visit is to the dal mill, set up by Seva Mandir with the local farmers as a cooperative which buys in lentils from near-by villages and processes them,

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selling the resulting dal to an increasing number of buyers in Udaipur and further afield.

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This too has vastly improved the livelihoods of farmers who before had to take their lentils to Gujarat, depending on middlemen to buy their produce at frequently knock-down prices. As a venture it is close to break-even, but the aim is to scale up operations, if some working capital can be sourced, so that the cooperative becomes more successful.

On the way back to our base, we discuss the question of the armed locals. The tribe practises mohtana, the custom of seeking private compensation for any form of injury or accident. If someone is killed or injured (or simply thought to have been killed or injured), retribution is sought from the families of those held responsible, and indeed from whole villages. This takes the form of exorbitant financial claims (up to hundreds of thousands of rupees for a life – well beyond most of these locals) as well as physical beatings. There is apparently one village which has been deserted for years following its sacking by the inhabitants of another village. This system applies to any workplace injuries, bringing the almost unheard of (in India) concept of health and safety rather sharply into focus for Seva Mandir as it supervises the RBS work! It also explains why our Seva Mandir driver is the only one we have ever known to pull off the road when his mobile rings. You wouldn’t want to hit a goat or a cow, let alone a person, on these roads.

Before the light fades, John films a short interview for the e-newsletter with Himanshu, who is about to set off on an all-expenses-paid trip to South Korea, one of 9 young people from around the world chosen to attend a symposium on water. If his presentation on his Kotra model for clean drinking water and sanitation is chosen as one of top 3, he stands to win a large sum which will help Seva Mandir implement his solution to local needs. He is a sincere and impressive young man who deserves every success.

After a light supper and a surprisingly good night’s sleep on somewhat basic camp beds, we rise early the following morning and head off to visit another balwadi where John aims to take photos of children arriving for the day. Once again, actually managing to convince people that we do need to leave on time is a challenge, but we finally get to a little village day-care centre before the last of its pupils have arrived. It is set behind a house, facing a beautiful area of farmland dotted with tall palm trees as it stretches away to the Aravalli hills.   We see some raggedy tots arriving, often with siblings

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or with parents,

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but the mere sight of John with a camera terrifies them and they immediately start bawling – not quite the image we were hoping to capture!   A few are persuaded that we are not ogres and stop wailing long enough to have their photos taken.

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We then go inside the little room with its mud walls and see morning prayers. One child has the most rapt and fervent expression I have ever seen during prayer and I am captivated by her. She is radiant and when the children take turns to pick out the card with their name and drawing on it and announce their name to the class, she is bursting with joy and enthusiasm.

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On leaving the balwadi we stand for a while and watch a two women working in the fields

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and carrying huge baskets they have filled with wheat sheaves to the man at the top of the hill who is building up a pile ready for the thresher.

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On our way to our final destination we pass three vehicles loaded to overflowing with more armed men – brandishing bows and arrows, sticks, rifles and swords. Very sensibly, John does not attempt to take photos as we move swiftly on.

We park under a spreading banyan tree and set off on foot across some fields to inspect a large anicut Seva Mandir has built to store water that is then channelled into the fields.

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A cormorant dries his wings on a rock and a kingfisher makes a splash and retreats to a branch with his breakfast. As always, we have attracted a following of villagers curious to see us take an interest in their surroundings. On our way back to the car we watch a woman spreading moistened mud by hand on a patch of soil to make what appears to be an area for drying produce.

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This has been yet another very instructive field trip, and it has been wonderful to escape the town and our laptops to enjoy the fresh air for a while. We bid farewell to Himanshu and hope that his visa for South Korea comes through in time! [Post script: it did and Himanshu did indeed win a place in the top three. Warmest congratulations to him on this well-deserved success.]

 

Clean Drinking Water at Dholi Ghati

Badgaon block (or administrative district) is one of the closest to Udaipur of the rural areas in which Seva Mandir works. Many of its villages can be reached by taking the main highway which runs east–west just north of Bedla village on Udaipur’s northern outskirts and heading west for 20 kilometres or so before branching off left to pass between fields bordered by dry stone walls. The countryside is hilly as this area nestles in the Aravalli hills which continue their ancient journey in a southwesterly direction towards Gujarat. Today, we are not going so far. Kotra, one of the farthest of Seva Mandir’s blocks from Udaipur, lies some 150 kilometres further out and borders on Gujarat, but our destination, the hamlet of Dholi Ghati, one of three hamlets near the village of Jogiyon-ka-Guda, is only a few kilometres from the highway.

Representatives of Seva Mandir’s Natural Resource Development (NRD) team are to hold a meeting with the inhabitants of Dholi Ghati to discuss the new water tank which has been built in their hamlet with Seva Mandir’s support to provide clean drinking water. The meeting, which will discuss how the local inhabitants will undertake, and contribute financially to, the maintenance of the tank, will be followed by a practical training session on chlorinating the water in the tank which holds 4,000 litres.

The new tank is part of a larger project started in December 2013 to support the three hamlets of Jogiyon-ka-Guda through the construction of three new water tanks fed by existing wells, the restoration of these three wells and the repair of a government-constructed water tank. A number of village meetings were held to assess the clean drinking water needs in three hamlets and to discuss the contribution to be made by the local people to the creation of these community assets. In line with Seva Mandir’s normal practice, 10 – 20% of the overall cost of the project should be borne by the local community contributing either in cash or kind. In this case, the local community contributed the stone to construct the tank and the labour as well as a small amount in cash paid into the village fund (the Gram Vikas Kosh).

The Seva Mandir team of Himmat, Victoria, Bhupendra and Mohan is accompanied by two volunteers.  The team has kindly agreed to collect me en route to the highway via Bedla.   Once underway, the first stop is for delicious chai and nibbles in Gogunda, which is no more than three-quarters of a cross-roads but bustling with life, to provide sustenance before we start the meeting and training. This is an NRD tradition and one which should most definitely be continued!

On arriving at Dholi Ghati, we are warmly welcomed by a number of local people who start to spread a large mat, partly in the shade of the beautiful neem tree, which will be the venue for the meeting. While this is happening, I visit the small balwadi, a preschool day centre for children up to the age of five, which is only a few metres away. The sanchalika (nursery teacher) and her young assistant are giving the toddlers their early lunch. The youngsters seem to be on good form — they have certainly eaten up well, judging by how little is left on their plates!

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The balwadis, in this and many other communities, were started by Seva Mandir and continue to be funded in part through donations raised by it from mainly international donors but with the local community contributing as it can. The balwadis provide preschool facilities which prepare the children either for attendance at a government school or, where there is no functioning government school, possibly at one of Seva Mandir’s own bridge schools or shiksha kendras.  Notwithstanding that the government has a statutory obligation to provide schooling for all children, more often than not in the rural areas there is no government school within reach of the village or, if there is one, no teacher who has been appointed to the school or, if there is both a school and an appointed teacher, the teacher is never or rarely there: on average, teacher absenteeism in government schools in theses rural areas is as high as 80%. In these cases, the Seva Mandir shiksha kendras provide essential education while villagers, again with Seva Mandir’s support, lobby for their rights to government education.

Outside in the warm sunlight, the locals begin to congregate and take their places on the mat. There is obviously a good relationship with the NRD team with whom they exchange news while waiting for others to arrive. The women are colourfully dressed and sit together partly in the sunshine (it is the beginning of winter after all!) whilst the NRD team and the volunteers find places in the shade.

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These meetings are always a challenge for the photographer, with bright light and dark shadows testing the camera’s ‘dynamic range’ (the spectrum from dark to light tones in the image which the digital sensor can record) and therefore the technical exposure skills of the photographer. The women ask Victoria why I am taking so many photographs and this is the reason. Diplomatically, however, Victoria does not explain that the photographer is ‘technically challenged’ but indicates that it is good to have a good number of images from which to make a selection for various Seva Mandir publications! The women are intrigued but satisfied.

The meeting starts and the first topic on the agenda is the new water tank. It is necessary to decide which members of the local community will take responsibility for cleaning the tank and also how much each household will contribute to a small fund to pay for maintenance and eventually repairs. There are both men and women from the hamlet present but it is striking that it is the women who take the initiative, led by the woman president of the Gram Samuh or local residents’ committee. This woman is a jolly soul with a big smile and obvious sense of humour. With one other woman seated close to her, she volunteers to take responsibility for cleaning and maintenance.

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The setting up of village committees which are inclusive, in particular, of women has been at the very core of Seva Mandir’s approach to development in southern Rajasthan for nearly half a century. Overcoming traditional divisions and prejudices in the local communities, whether based on gender, caste or age, and building consensus has been a vital component of securing the commitment of local people to the projects on which Seva Mandir has worked with the communities, be they setting up a balwadi and remunerating the sanchalika and, if there is one, her assistant; training traditional birth assistants who support pregnant women or bal sakhis who provide postnatal medical advice and support for mothers, their babies and young children; building a small dam (anicut) to help collect monsoon rainwater for irrigation; recovering and protecting common pastureland; building Ecosan or traditional wet toilets; or any of the other essential facilities which we take for granted in the so-called developed world. Without local residents accepting ‘ownership’ of the projects, the projects will not be successful. One of Seva Mandir’s strengths, born of years of constructive collaboration with the communities with which it works, is a bond with the local people and an understanding of the village institutions which they have established. This bond and understanding, so clearly evident in the excellent relationship which Himmat, Victoria and the two locally based or zonal members of the team, Bhupendra and Mohan, have with our hosts and the manner in which the meeting is conducted reflect mutual respect and shared experiences, but also Seva Mandir’s deep insights into the dynamics of village life which account for its ability to communicate meaningfully with the community and to advise and support in a constructive way. This long-term relationship is at the heart of the ‘democratic and participatory development’ fostered by Seva Mandir, which is typified by the meeting I am privileged to attend.

The meeting also agrees the sum that each household will contribute to the maintenance and repair fund before moving onto the next topic, the provision of Ecosan toilets.

It may seem remarkable to westerners visiting rural India, but many country folk here still have no toilet in or close to their homes and use the open fields. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that there are more mobile phones in India than toilets. Seva Mandir has worked with local communities to explain the benefits of installing a toilet: there is the security aspect for women and girls who are vulnerable to assault when visiting the fields, particularly before sunrise and after dark; there is a health aspect in the provision of proper sanitation: and, in the case of Ecosan toilets, an agricultural benefit. The Ecosan toilet works on the principle that urine and dry matter are kept separate. The dry matter is kept in a pit below the toilet, treated with sand or ash, and turns to odourless organic manure which is then used on the fields or small garden allotments in which the villagers grow a few vegetables and even fruit around their homes.

The woman president of the Gram Samuh explains that the villagers have seen examples of both the Ecosan toilets which Seva Mandir has helped build and government-built models. She is most definite that she prefers those built with Seva Mandir’s support. Victoria asks why. Well, the president replies, ‘I am not as slender as some of the women and I cannot fit into those government toilets!’ That settles it!   A new project for the NRD team in Dholi Ghati!

This important issue decided, the meeting breaks up and we walk to the new water tank, pristinely painted, where Himmat first explains the importance of chlorination

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before practical instruction is given on measuring the chlorine and mixing it well with the correct volume of water before the solution is poured into the 4,000-litre water tank. The president is nothing if not hands-on and steps forward to receive the training. She is shown how best to measure the chlorine before mixing it thoroughly in the water by pouring the solution from one bucket to another and repeating the process several times as the other women, a few children and the men look on admiringly.

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Ethel, one of the volunteers, remarks perceptively that there are in fact, apart from the toddlers in the balwadi who are now having a post lunch nap, very few children of school-going age in attendance. This is a good sign since it means that the local children are indeed in school!

Once the chlorine solution is well mixed, a local youth takes the bucket and scales the brand new ladder propped against the tank. The ladder is painted bright green and stands out against the freshly painted yellow walls of the tank. He pours the solution into the tank through an opening in the roof which he then closes again.

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Back at ground level, the locals gather in front of their clean water tank for the photographer. There are obviously immensely pleased and proud, as they should be.

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While waiting for the chlorine solution to mix with the water in the tank, the women ask Victoria about the colour of the hair of the other volunteer, Therese, who is a tall and striking Swedish girl with long blonde hair tied in a pony tail down her back. Victoria explains that the blonde hair and the fair skin go together and that it is natural. Some of the women tentatively stretch out a hand and stroke it with intrigue and delight. It appears that the women have also asked why the photographer has silver grey in his hair. Victoria, usually so diplomatic, responds candidly: ‘Oh, he’s just old!’ So, not just technically challenged but ancient too!

It is not clear whether sufficient time has passed for the chlorination process to be completed, but the women have waited long enough and one walks confidently over to the taps at the side of the tank with a drinking jug which she fills and then returns to offer water to her colleagues.

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There is much tasting and conferring as if sampling a beaujolais nouveau: yes, soft and delicious! The clean drinking water project is up and running!

As we wait for our vehicle to take us back to town, our hosts offer chai, not just one but several cups, which is most welcome. I reflect on the privilege of witnessing the fruits of Seva Mandir’s hard work and the dedication of its team members in leading this clean water project to a successful conclusion, and the evidence of strong local women taking responsibility for this new facility — perhaps only a small step along the road to empowerment, but an important one. All in all, an enlightening and uplifting experience!

My thanks to the wonderful Seva Mandir team!

Visiting Girwa

Sharing the beauty of southern Rajasthan intensifies the pleasure.  We were particularly privileged to be able to undertake a field trip to Girwa with Somerset and Emily on their recent visit.  Girwa is a beautiful rural area south of Udaipur in which Seva Mandir works closely with local communities on a number of vital projects including watershed, seed banks, pre-school day centres for small children and bridge schools for older children for whom there is no local government school.  Setting off bright and early, we were accompanied by two colleagues from Seva Mandir, Aarti and Chandra, and joined along the way by locally based members of the team.

Having turned off the main road, we were soon climbing up to about 400 meters and surveying the hills and valleys.

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Evidence of the watershed projects was all around and the benefits in terms of improved agriculture clear to see.

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We met local people who were proud of their countryside and welcoming.

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After a few stops to examine watershed projects which stop the rain water running off the hillsides causing soil erosion, and channel it for use by the farmers, our hosts explained apologetically that, in order to visit a pre-school day centre, Balwadi, and school, Shiksha Kendra, we would have to walk for a few kilometres.  But we were delighted.  The air was fresh and the sun warm but not scorching.

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Whilst Em had been to India before, this was Somerset’s first trip.  Seeing a camel asleep outside the Balwadi emphasised the distance from the City.  Inside the small hut, the children were seated on the ground singing.  They were bemused to see a group of strange looking guests

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and one burst into uncontrollable tears.  It was explained that the little girl was concerned that we might take her away.  There was a doubtless a story here but we did not probe.  The young teacher consoled the little one and calm returned.

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The Balwadis provide pre-school support for children up to the age of five.  They learn basic skills to prepare them for school and receive nutritional meals and immunization. With the small children cared for in the Balwadi, mothers are free to work, typically in the fields, and elder siblings are themselves able to attend school.

Outside, two women sat in their front yard where chillis dried in the sunshine.

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We thanked our gracious hosts and moved on around the hillside

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to find the Shiksha Kendra where the children, all together in one room, were reciting verse.  We were invited inside.  One of the senior girls was asked to recite a poem and did so with confidence.

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The pupils then played a game.  One of them was chosen to be the detective and went outside while the class picked one of the remaining youngsters to be ‘it’.  The detective then returned and was allowed two guesses to find the right classmate.  This was done by the detective walking around the class which was seated in a circle on the ground

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with the person who was ‘it’ leading some rhythmical finger clicking.  The detective had to observe carefully to try to work out who was leading the game.  No questions permitted.  After an initial unsuccessful attempt, the detective correctly identified the senior girl who had recited the poem.  How he knew we will never know, save that we suspected that the class might have selected her more often than not.  We said our goodbyes and took our leave to head back to the vehicle past homes

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and fields

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Time was running short and we did not visit the seed bank on this occasion but pressed on to Seva Mandir’s residential learning camp on the route back to Udaipur.  The residential leaning camp is one of our favourite places.  Built in the countryside, it is home to a hundred or so children from different rural communities who would otherwise receive no education, either because there is no functioning government school in their locality or because their impoverished parents send them to work in the fields, typically over the state border in Gujarat for the cotton harvests.  The residential camps are therefore held outside the harvest periods and last eight weeks.  The children may attend three camps in a year and are taught basic literacy and numeracy skills to equip them for formal education if the opportunity arises.

We arrived on the first day of this particular camp.  Most of the children had arrived but some were still expected.  The day was devoted to noting their details and measuring them for the two sets of clothing which are provided by Seva Mandir.  While they waited, the new pupils were encouraged to demonstrate their existing skill levels by drawing, which they did with great care and attention.

For many of the children, this was their first trip away from home.  Nevertheless, the smiles abounded at the prospect of learning.

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We hope to return on a Sunday to help out with extra-curricular activities including some basic language work in English and sports.

We took our leave as the children went for a well-earned lunch cooked on the premises and headed back to Udaipur.

A wonderful morning!